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A florist returns to her community-service roots.

Skills in Bloom

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She owned Bloomers, a floral design business on Cary Street that had been thriving for years. But something didn't feel right. She missed something she began years ago and she couldn't ignore it any longer. So she closed her doors on Cary Street for good.

Today, two years later, Kathy Schuler is back in school earning her leadership degree and teaching in the community again, and she loves it. Along with three undergraduate classmates from the University of Richmond — Bethany Smocer, 21, Kendra Corey, 21, and Amy Pickering, 21 — Schuler, 36, has started a nonprofit vocational program for young adults.

The program started as part of a leadership-studies class at UR. The class required students to start a community-service program and write a report detailing its impact. Drawing upon Schuler's business experience and past community service, the four women decided to teach a floral-design class at the Adult Career Development Center on Leigh Street in the Carver neighborhood.

The program encourages students to be self-sufficient by teaching them a skill they can use in the workplace. "Even if it's just in their own basement in their own home," says Schuler, the program aims to put students into business for themselves.

The "Flower Night" (as the students call it) class is 15 strong, and oftentimes Schuler must turn away additional students for lack of space and materials. Women make up most of the class. Most of the students are in high school or earning their general-equivalency diplomas. Several are young parents.

The teachers are pleased with the enthusiasm and particularly the camaraderie the class has generated since it began Oct. 9.

"When I came in there, I didn't know anyone," says student Javon Robinson. "Now we consider ourselves the closest of friends. It's more relaxing than anything because we just have fun and learn."

On a recent Thursday night, a buzz and hum of activity emanates from the classroom and spills out into the hallway.

Harris Wheeler, who has worked with Schuler before in Carver and helps with the class, recalls working down the hall from Schuler a few years ago: "They were always buzzin' in her class." Wheeler says he thinks Schuler's class is so popular because it exposes the students to beauty — something they're not often privy to in Carver. The area can be rough and ugly sometimes.

The class provides "a creative outlet as well as something the students can use," Smocer says.

Through past community service, the Philadelphia-born Schuler has learned what it takes to teach successfully. She brought her knowledge to the center five years ago when she began working on its citizens' advisory board. Soon thereafter, she worked on a project called Job Opportunities for Youth. The program instilled its students with workplace skills, taught them how to dress for interviews and work, and paid them minimum wage for their efforts.

"They'd support each other, help each other out," says Schuler. "It was great because nobody knew anything when they came in, and by the end of the program, each one was almost a professional. They were so proud of themselves."

Individuals with Schuler's dedication anchor the center. The majority of the instructors there are volunteers.

"If we didn't have the volunteers — and the grants — we wouldn't exist," says Debra Hall, an education specialist at the center.

To be sure, the volunteers and the grants keep the wheels rolling. Adult Education — a division of Richmond Public Schools — pays for the program's basic costs and its skeleton crew of administrators. The remainder of the budget comes from federal, state, and local grants, totaling $6,000 per year.

Ultimately, funding determines the center's limits, and that worries Schuler. On several occasions, Schuler has paid for class supplies out of her own pocket.

Schuler believes it's a small price to pay. She has big plans for her program. She is already working on establishing additional vocations at the center. She wants to recruit more teachers to instruct such subjects as horticulture, carpentry, culinary arts, auto mechanics and graphic arts.

"We try to keep the dialogue open," Schuler says. "We sit down with the students and ask them what they want to do, how they see the program going."

Schuler also wants to get more of her colleagues from the retail floral business into her class to recruit the students. Schuler says if one student lands a job, she's accomplished something.

Many students are already looking for work and seeking out business opportunities on their own. The class "can help me learn something I didn't know before," says student Victoria Lightfoot. "It's a good reference and I really want to get a job out of it." Another student, Katrina Portis, plans to start a cottage business with her mother, who also takes Schuler's class.

This week, the class is busy working on a project for Valentine's Day. The students will sell their floral arrangements at the center and at several local businesses. The proceeds will go toward the class.

In the meantime, Schuler will do her part to keep the program going. Funding is an important thing, but not the only thing to her. "I get more gratification out of teaching and watching others learn than making money for myself."

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